STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Navy slotback John Howell is torn about the scandal that engulfed Penn State. It was, after all, the team he rooted for while growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs.
But the turmoil in Happy Valley hasn’t changed how he feels about the football program or the chance to jog on to the Beaver Stadium field when the Midshipmen (0-1) visit the NIttany Lions (0-2) on Saturday.
“It was sad to see all that torn down so quickly,” said Howell, a senior from Hatfield, Pa. “That being said, I still look at Penn State the same way from a football standpoint. It’s one of the best Division I programs in the country.”
It’s way too early to tell how the Nittany Lions program will fare following strict NCAA sanctions including a four-year bowl ban and significant scholarship cuts. Long the standard-bearer for Eastern football, the program has started a now well-known rebuilding project under the leadership of rookie coach Bill O’Brien.
The former New England Patriots offensive coordinator has steadied the team in the face of tremendous adversity, though he’s still waiting for his first career head-coaching win.
Penn State is also trying to avoid its first 0-3 start to a season since the Nittany Lions began 2001 with four straight defeats.
While there might be urgency to win, there’s no sense of panic.
“We’re right where we’ve always been. We’re taking one practice at a time,” quarterback Matt McGloin said. “This team has a lot of fight in it. We’ve overcome so much in the past. Starting 0-2 doesn’t worry us at all. We’re going to try to correct our mistakes and get ready for the game Saturday.”
It’s a game that will feature contrasting offenses, as is often the case in a contest that includes Navy’s triple-option running game. The Midshipmen were fourth in the country in 2011 averaging 312 rushing yards a game.
But Navy managed just 149 yards on 40 carries in their season-opening loss two weeks ago to Notre Dame, a game played in Ireland. Quarterback Trey Miller did complete 14 of 19 passes for 192 yards, but carried 20 times for 16 yards and fumbled four times.
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo wants to get the running game back on track.
“It’s important every week. That’s who we are. That formula never changes,” he said. “We’ve got to run the ball, eat the clock. Obviously against these guys, it’s magnified.”
The Midshipmen offense will post a challenge for a Penn State defense that rebounded last week with a strong showing in a 17-16 loss at Virginia, though the Nittany Lions are still having trouble on third downs with opponents converting at a 61 percent clip.
The defense will have to be disciplined and cover gaps to limit the running lanes.
“Navy is so good at what they do. They’re attacking your discipline, and they’re attacking your toughness,” O’Brien said. “We have a tough defense, but what we’ve got to do defensively is we’ve got to play responsibility football.”
In contrast, McGloin and the offense are getting used to a new playbook that spices up the passing game and increases the tempo on offense.
The senior showed grit last week after re-entering the game after banging up his right, throwing elbow. He then led the offense on a two-minute drill that got Penn State within field-goal range before kicker Sam Ficken went wide left on a 42-yard attempt.
It is McGloin’s job to master a complicated playbook modeled after the successful offense O’Brien ran with New England — a responsibility magnified given that young or inexperienced players man most of the skill positions. After trouble in the red zone last week, when Penn State came away with just a touchdown and a field goal in five trips against Virginia, the Nittany Lions may be shortening up the play calls this week when they get inside the 20.
“It’s tough on us because the play calls are so long … It’s up to me to get up there and see what the defense is doing, motion some guys, check to a pass or run,” McGloin said. “I think it’s best for the team to shorten up some of the play calls but keep the same plays.”
Penn State may have to start its third tailback in three games if Bill Belton (left ankle) or Derek Day (left shoulder) can’t go. Both are back at practice, but remain day-to-day, so bruising 6-foot-1 junior Curtis Dukes (10 carries for 30 yards last week) may get the starting nod.
O’Brien also hinted on a radio show Thursday that he may sprinkle in a surprise in the backfield rotation. Fans on social media were buzzing about whether that might be senior fullback P.J. Byers, an active duty member of the U.S. Navy officer program.
Byers played in just two games last year with one rushing attempt for a yard. He’s mainly a scout team player this season — so far. Getting Byers some carries against Navy would be a nice touch with Penn State designating Saturday as “Military Appreciation Day.”
“They’re hard-working guys,” Byers said about the Midshipmen. “It’s going to be a good game either way. I can’t wait to play against them.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)